Various factors, including lifestyle, genetics, and other elements, contribute to the development of metabolic syndrome, a group of conditions that collectively increase the risk for serious health problems. A new study has found that stress, due to its ability to drive inflammation in the body, is also associated with metabolic syndrome. This suggests that low-cost and relatively simple stress management techniques could potentially improve biological health outcomes.
Study: Inflammatory biomarkers link perceived stress to metabolic dysregulation. Image credit: masamasa3 / Shutterstock
“We specifically studied people in midlife, a critical time to determine who will experience accelerated aging. Stress contributes significantly to several negative health consequences as people age,” said lead author Jasmeet Hayes, associate professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.
“There are many variables that affect metabolic syndrome. Some we can’t change, but others we can. Everyone experiences stress,” said Hayes. “And stress management is a modifiable factor that is affordable and people can do it in their everyday lives without needing to involve medical professionals.”
The research was recently published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity – Health.
Associations between stress and biological health have been established, but few previous studies have examined the involvement of inflammation in the link between stress and metabolic syndrome.
For individuals with metabolic syndrome, at least three of five factors that increase the risk for heart disease, diabetes, and other health issues are diagnosed – excess abdominal fat, high blood pressure, low HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol), and high fasting blood sugar and triglycerides. The condition is also known as insulin resistance syndrome.
Using data from a sample of 648 participants (average age 52) from a nationwide survey titled “Midlife in the United States,” lead author Savana Jürgens developed a statistical model to assess how inflammation fits into the link between stress and metabolic syndrome. The analysis included information from participants‘ reported perceived stress, blood biomarkers for inflammation, and results of physical examinations indicating risk factors for metabolic syndrome.
“There haven’t been many studies that have looked at all three variables at the same time,” said Jürgens, a psychology student in Hayes‘ lab. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that stress is related to inflammation, inflammation is related to metabolic syndrome, and stress is related to metabolic syndrome. But pulling all of these pieces together is rare.”
Composite inflammation values were calculated using biomarkers, including the well-known IL-6 and C-reactive protein, as well as E-Selectin and ICAM-1, which contribute to the recruitment of white blood cells in inflammation, and fibrinogen, a protein essential for blood clot formation.
The statistical modeling showed that stress does indeed have a link to metabolic syndrome, and inflammation explains more than half of this association – 61.5%, to be exact.
“Perceived stress has a modest impact on metabolic syndrome, but inflammation explains a large part of it,” said Jürgens.
The results make sense – stress is just one of many factors that can disrupt health markers. Other factors include a range of behaviors, including inactivity, unhealthy eating habits, smoking, and poor sleep, as well as low socioeconomic status, advanced age, and female gender.
However, considering that an estimated one in three American adults suffers from metabolic syndrome, it’s important to know how to reduce or prevent the risk, said Hayes. The results also serve as further evidence that stress and its relation to inflammation significantly impact overall biological health.
“People view stress as mental health, that everything is psychological. That’s not the case. Chronic stress has real physical effects,” said Hayes. “It could be inflammation, it could be metabolic syndrome, or a whole host of other things. This is another reminder.”
Future work will involve a more detailed examination of whether stress has a causal impact on metabolic syndrome and the assessment of stress management techniques that may be most effective in reducing inflammation.
This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and The Ohio State University’s Discovery Themes Chronic Brain Injury Program, where Hayes serves as a researcher. Co-author Sarah Prieto from The Ohio State University also contributed to the study.